Friday, October 26, 2012

Behind the Steel Bars in Lebanon

By: Kaylyn Hlavaty
Produced & edited by: Kaylyn Hlavaty

Behind the steel bars and the barbed wire fence are human beings, with an identity forgotten by the government. Inside are cries for attention and evidence of inhumane living conditions. Their faces are anything but forgotten by their family and friends. Located just a time zone away, is a prison system violating basic human rights and international prison standards.

In American prisons, mothers, fathers and children can visit their loved ones on a regular basis by simply making a reservation. At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, a child can visit his or her mother on a weekly basis and children can spend their time in a reading room. Unfortunately, the opportunity to visit a parent in a safe environment isn’t available in other parts of the world. In Lebanon, wives, husbands, children and parents have to face corrupt security guards, long distances and uncertainty just to visit a loved one.

Tanya Ghorra, a media professional and collaborator for The National Campaign to Abolish Death Penalty has witnessed the effects of imprisonment on family relationships.

“I once witnessed a young girl who came with her mom and she couldn’t see her dad. Her dad was detained and she was in the courtyard screaming for her father saying ‘I want to see my daddy’. The mother was in tears and so we went to the warden to sign papers and the mother begs him and after the little girl told the warden she wanted to say she loved her dad, he agreed and brought the dad back down again.”

This is the world inside, Roumieh; one of Lebanon’s 20 regional prisons according to the Lebanese Center for Human Rights. It is the largest prison for adult males and minors with a total population of 3,500 people in a facility with the capacity built for only 1,450 prisoners. Ghorra has worked closely with death row inmates in Roumieh for three years and saw the conditions of death row as just one of the problems within the Lebanese prison system.

"The first time was transforming because you enter a completely different world. You can imagine how they are living, but I don’t even call this living. There is nothing,” Ghorra said. A person who signed a false check goes to Roumieh with drug dealers, murderers and rapists.

Ghorra says there are smuggling of drugs and the exchange of sex toys among prisoners that are passed from cell to cell.
 View of Roumieh Prison. Courtesy of AP. Academic Fair Use

“Weirdly enough, death row inmates are the most scared people in the prison. At night they stay in their cell because drug dealers, gangs and offenders occupy the hallways.”

 The ALEF-Act for Human Rights reports the prisons are full of corruption starting with judges and trickling down to lawyers and even court reporters. For example, judges may take bribes to influence other judges or sentence the accused in a certain way. In a corrupt system, the accused may have no chance in winning a case or gaining permission to be released from jail. ALEF observed low-level corruption in a Jdeideh Courthouse. When the time came for lawyers to get access to a court file, lawyers often needed to bribe the clerk and if a lawyer didn’t comply, obtaining the files would be difficult.

“In the prison, you have a mix of inmates who are serving their sentences and then you have others who are awaiting a trial who may be found guilty or innocent,” said George Ghali, who is the project manager for the Arbitrary Detention Project of ALEF.

“The system is full of corruption starting at the court level down to the prisons and I think it’s a system that needs to be amended and the population needs to be addressed.”

Overcrowding is a cause for the poor conditions in the prison, but it’s also the effect of an inconsistent judicial process. The problem is evident because out of Roumieh’s 3,700 detainees, only 721 were serving sentences while the others waited for a trial according to the ALEF report. Ghorra said according to Lebanese text law, detaining a person shouldn’t last more than 72 hours but if you are investigating someone, than this can be renewed up to two times.

Drama therapist and founder of The Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy (Catharsis), Zeina Daccache produced an award-winning documentary called “12 Angry Lebanese”. The film was based off the American film “12 Angry Men”. While filming inside Roumieh,

“In Lebanon, you just wait. It takes a lot of money and energy and at times it’s the prisoners who ask to postpone a trial because a judge can ask for a testimony and sometimes things are made up so the witness is told what to say or may not show up,” Daccache said.

In the U.S. sometimes there are one or two inmates in a 7 by 11 foot cell. In Roumieh, a normal cell is 5 by 4 meters. In just one cell, there are as many as 15-20 people crammed with no plumbing and little ventilation.

   Prisoners inside Roumieh. Courtesy of by NOW Lebanon.Academic Fair Use   
Often the parents come by to take inmate’s laundry to wash and bring back. The Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners says, “Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”

 “Sometimes the food is infected with bugs and it’s often inedible. For example, today is a chicken dish. If you don’t have money to bribe the officers then you will get something not even close to chicken that you won’t even be able to swallow down,” said Ghorra. “But if you have some money, that same exact kitchen will provide you with a decent, edible chicken dish.”

 Many prisoners rely on family members to bring them food, cigarettes, chocolates and basic necessities. Usually walking over 500 meters on a bumpy dirt road in the rain or sweltering sun, mothers, sisters, wives and children will stand in line and experience mistreatment from prison security.

 The conditions inside are eye opening even for social worker of the MH-Bekaa Project, Sarah Hammoud who regularly helps the prisoners inside Roumieh find medical treatment and get in contact with family members.

 “I had no idea when I walked in Roumieh how bad things were inside this place. Everyone said I would see bad things and I did. It’s very inhumane for prisoners. It’s terrible. In the winter it’s very very cold and in the summer it gets very very hot inside,” Hammoud said.

 Torture inside the prison walls remains a problem during and after criminal investigations. Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture is an NGO that supports and protects the rights of prisoners and detainees. All over the world torture is used to break down the personality of the victim for personal motives.

 Mohammed Safa is the Secretary General of Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture who also believes the prison conditions are in no way aligned with international standards.

 Between the years 2007-2012, there have been 70 prisoners who have died in the Lebanon prisons according to Safa. They suffer from AIDS, cancer and other diseases without ever seeing a medical professional and receiving adequate treatment.

 “The Lebanese government didn’t do anything and they promised and promised, but nothing ever happened,” Safa said.

 The lack of medical treatment to prisoners is viewed as tortured to Khiam Rehabilitation Center. Investigative death reports are often not conducted by the government Safa says.

 “The government didn’t give any reports of how any of the victims died because the government told their families they died of normal reasons,” Safa said.

 The government does not address violence towards prisoners because it again stems from the line of corruption at the top these administrative officers. Hammoud said there were many cases she saw involving either mental or physical forms of torture.

 Men who were convicted of drug abuse or selling drugs were often physically tortured for information and locations during the investigations. Prison and police authorities used beatings and other special techniques.

 “For example, I would help and communicate with prisoners who in the past had their hands and feet tied with a bandage over their eyes,” Hammoud said. “They would be tortured without having any idea where they were and then would be screaming because they were scared. Other prisoners would hear them while this happened.”

 Despite the dark image over Roumieh and other prisons in the region, there are many non –governmental organizations stepping in to help when the Lebanese government fails to take initiative of the situation such as by providing libraries and a computer center. AJEM is an organization that works with persons incarcerated in Roumieh and their families. The organization maintains a close watch and active presence in the prisons by having an office outside the front of Roumieh.

 “One inmate who is serving a life-sentence is a computer certified teacher and he teaches fellow inmates every three months and they finish one course. He has a credit system established inside,” said Ghorra.

 With corruption in prisons like Roumieh and others across Lebanon, reform can take a long time to notice. Despite prisoners who have committed crimes, there are people who have been locked up for months and even years that are innocent, but they have no voice. Many activists and citizens alike believe there should be reform within the judicial process and prison conditions. Until the Lebanese government takes a stance to reform the prison system, there are NGO’s making changes inside the prison and giving a voice to those who do not have one.

 “The beauty of the Lebanese government is that it’s their job to control the prisons. We can’t solve their problems because this is a big issue. We hope our program will continue and make changes visible to the Lebanese government and families. Rehabilitation is one of the key ways to fix this issue throughout the world”, said Ghali.

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